, Research Paper
7 April 2000
Nihilistic Themes and Characters in Literature
The philosophy of Nihilism was born out of an individuals discontent. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Nihilism is ?a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.? The roots of Nihilism come from a dissatisfied individual, maintaining a view that nothing in the world has a real existence.
Nihilism, from the Latin Nihil or nothing, was first used to describe Christian heretics during the Middle Ages. The term however remained obscure until the late 1800?s. It was first popularized in Russia to describe young intellectuals. Those who influenced Western ideas, repudiated Christianity, considered Russian society backward and oppressive, and advocated revolutionary change were considered Nihilists.
Nihilism represents a revolt against the social established order, and a belief that existence is senseless and useless. Through literature and its history, many types of philosophy have been developed and explored. Nihilism has spent almost its entire life span in literature, and until the latter half of the twentieth century, philosophers have done little to implement Nihilism in real life. In examining the works of Dostoyevsky, Twain, Huxley, and Orwell we can better understand the nature of Nihilism.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, perhaps one of Russia?s most influential novelist, was the first to implement the concepts of Nihilism in his works. Dostoyevsky?s Crime and Punishment is a tale of one man?s sin and redemption. The Protagonist Raskolnikov is a
poor student and a prime example of an individual?s discontent with his society and his societal position. Raskolnikov?s crime was the murder of a shrewd pawnbroker. His rationalization: the extraordinary man theory. This Nihilistic idea asserts that some individuals (extraordinary men like Napoleon or Alexander the Great) are above the law of ordinary men. Therefore the crimes committed by these extraordinary men are not punishable by the laws of ordinary men.
This theory of the extraordinary man, or superman, was a concept foremost in the minds of early Nihilists. Nihilism denies the possibility of principles of right and wrong, while the extraordinary man theory is parallel to this concept. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Neitzsche were two philosophers to first publish works that discussed the Extraordinary Man theory. Their motives behind the theory however were different. The Hegelian superman is one who stands above the ordinary man, but works for the benefit of all mankind, where as the Nietzschean superman does not exist for the benefit of society, but rather the for his own personal gratification.
Dostoyevsky presented a harmonious paradox of these two theories in Raskolnikov. For Raskolnikov?s the extraordinary men have the right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way because they are extraordinary. But, by the same token, Raskolnikov perceives his personal values, as a superior truth if implemented would benefit society. At the end of his tale Dostoyevsky upholds his own
values by the confession and eventual punishment of Raskolnikov. As many novels that include Nihilistic characters the end result is a tragic judgement. Nonetheless Raskolnikov?s character remains a tragic hero and archetype for the nihilistic ways of the oppressed proletarian.
British author George Orwell is perhaps one of the best known contemporary authors who has written with strong Nihilistic tone. Orwell being British, born in India, and having served with the Indian Imperial Police, possessed strong opinions concerning imperialism. When Orwell resigned from his position in Burma, he resolved to speak out against the domination of any person over another. This personal decision led to the development of works including nihilistic characters.
The novel Nineteen Eighty-four by Orwell is a classic depiction of a solitary Nihilist?s struggle with oppressive social surroundings. The protagonist Winston Smith struggles to live under the totalitarian reign of ?Big Brother.? Smith is living the definition of Nihilism. He internally opposes the traditional values of ?Big Brother? (War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength), and is publicly branded a heretic Goldstein follower. Through his life Smith developed a feeling that his existence was senseless and useless. To Smith the social and established order was described by this excerpt, ?Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards.?(Orwell, 169)
As with Crime and Punishment, Nineteen Eighty-four ends tragically for the protagonist. Smith, like Raskolnikov is severely punished for his unorthodox behavior. Smith is also charged for his ?thoughtcrime.? This charge leads to large amount of
inhuman torture to reprogram Smith. Thus the nihilist in him is stamped out, and Smith refutes every one of his nonconforming ideas.
With in the theme of this anti-utopia tale there often comes a nihlistic character. Like Nineteen Eighty-four, Aldous Huxley?s A Brave New World describes a possible societal structure in the future of the human race. In this tale of conformity two nihilistic characters are presented. The protagonist Bernard Marx and the savage John, who is reintroduced to civilized society. Marx, who was born into the highest social status, is bored and disgusted with the ways of his society. As with the works previously discussed the nihilists in this story serve only to convey the author?s message. In this case Huxley?s nihilists are expressing the political views of the time and a forecast the future of humanity. A Brave New World is Huxley?s interpretation of what society will develop into if socialism is implemented on a grand scale. Evidence of this is found in the names and sir names of characters in a Brave New World (i.e. Bernard Marx).
The United States of America is a country founded on the basis of Nihilism. The American Revolution is a prime example nihilists in action. Although not the first to sow the seed of Nihilism in America, Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain was the first to weave the principles of Nihilism into his tales. Twain?s Letter?s form the Earth depicts the absurdities of Christianity and other major world religions.
Nihilists throughout history have often been association with the radical terrorist sect. Twain upholds this affiliation with his character depiction of Satan. Satan represents the ultimate Nihilist; he is banished from heaven for one celestial day for questioning the authority of the Creator. Twain voices his viewpoint thought letters by
Satan while he is banished on earth. Twain?s use of Satan and the format in which this story is written makes this tale slightly different from the others being covered. Still, Letters from the Earth remains relevant to the study of Nihilism.
When Satan first arrives on earth his first observation is, ?The people are all insane, the other animals are all insane, the earth is insane?Man is a marvelous curiosity.?(Twain, 7) Twain fortifies his point that traditional Christian values and beliefs are unfounded when explaining the idiocy and unlikely hood of the tale of Noah and his ark. Not only does Twain voice is nihilistic opinions though Satan?s comments about religious people and their practices; on the whole the entire tone of the tale is satirical display of extreme skepticism.
There appears to be two re-occurring themes represented in the works discussed above (with the exception of Letters from the Earth), the nihilists discussed were all fighting for their rights as an individual entity. Raskolnikov, Smith, and Marx were born into societies based on socialist and communist concepts focusing on the common good. However the author?s motives behind their characters differ somewhat. Orwell and Huxley were both opposers of the socialist and communist movement on a grand scale. These two authors? wrote their anti-utopic tales congruently to their own personal beliefs. Dostoyevsky however was an adamant Russian socialist, who was once jailed for his political beliefs.
Crime and Punishment, 1984, and a Brave New World also share the re-occurring theme of tragedy. In each of these novels the protagonist ends up failing his moral quest. Raskolnikov confessed and was sentenced to a jail term in Siberia; this reflects
Dostoyevsky own experiences in jail. In a Brave New World, Smith is also sentenced to live in the remote area of Iceland to be reconditioned. As for Winston Smith his soul is broken into conformity through torture. These outcomes pose a question in my mind; why did these authors choose this fate for their characters? For Orwell we must consider his personal beliefs about oppression, why did Smith not triumph in destroying the system. Perhaps Orwell?s message is not for the nihilist to prevail, but rather a warning to all including the nihilist: watch your government, fascism may not be to fall off as you think. For Dostoyevsky it is obvious that his personal beliefs are not in favor of an anti-social, anti-Christian. At the end Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky upholds his own values by the punishment of Raskolnikov, which eventually leads him to refute all prior belief and accept Christianity. This turn around from prison is a direct model of Dostoyevsky?s own acceptance of Christ in jail.
All of the works discussed in this paper were written from the 1870?s to the 1940?s but only recently has the philosophy of nihilism caught hold in the main stream. The most recent evidence of this is the cultural revolution in America in the 1960?s. Although the term its self has not become ?common knowledge? the beliefs and behaviors have become very popular and almost trendy. Nihilism has become an all to convenient catch phrase for rebellious younger generation. The teachings of nihilism have even spilled over into mainstream music. Artists like Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor have even gone so far as to publicly advocate the teachings of Neitzsche in publicity interviews.
It remains to be seen what the outcome of this refutation of traditional belief will do to current society. In the words of Karl Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Perhaps change will be positive, perhaps negative we can only imagine as Huxley and Orwell did what the future has in store. One thing however will remain constant: no matter what societal confines are in place there will always be an defiant rebel.
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